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Still Waiting For Phaneuf To Take Flight

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

RELATED: Up And Down Season So Far | Phanuef Named Captain |
VIDEO: Tyrell Sent Flying | Lays Out Ruutu | Hit On Beleskey | Goal vs. Oilers
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Sports is often governed by what I call the plowhhorse/racehorse theory.

It goes something like this: if necessary you can take a racehorse and put him behind a plow. There is no way, however, you can turn a plow horse into a thoroughbred.

Put another way, if you were once a stud defenceman, you have a chance of regaining that standing. If you never have been, you never will be.

It has been a year since the Leafs acquired the player who would soon be their captain. From the outset, the seven-player deal consummated January 31, 2010 would be known as the Dion Phaneuf deal.

The Leafs did not trade Ian White, Matt Stajan, Nicklas Hagman and Jamal Mayers. They acquired Dion Phaneuf.

So let’s start there.

Clearly, the Leafs did not acquire the player who began his career with a 20-goal season and countless thunderous open ice hits. Once a runner-up for the Norris Trophy, Phaneuf has seen his goal total decrease from 20 to 17, 17, 11 and 12 last season. This year he has scored once while playing 33 games.

Phaneuf has never been a shutdown defenceman. He was something much rarer, a nuclear-type deterrent for puckhandlers charging into the Leafs zone and a player whose shot from the point prompted defenders to reconsider their career choices. In his first few seasons, he was that most coveted c commodity: a hard-nosed, hard-shooting franchise defenceman.

That shot, particularly on the power play, was the major element of his gaudy goal titles. Of the 54 goals Phaneuf scored in his first three seasons, 39 or 72 per cent came with the man advantage.

It’s hard to believe it took opponents so long to figure out that storming the cannon on the point would negate the power play, but Phaneuf does not enjoy anywhere near the space he did in the past.

Still, if you are looking for an explanation why he would go from 20 goals to one or two, you might be a while.

There’s no doubt that fully acclimatizing himself to life with a new team in a new conference, as a captain no less, is a time-consuming process. There’s a theory.

Leafs’ coach Ron Wilson has suggested that Phaneuf could profit from giving up some velocity on his shots. The idea is that rather than put the puck through the goalie, Phaneuf should put more emphasis on hitting the net.

That’s about it.

The rib-crunching part of Phaneuf’s game has been largely absent as well.

Fortunately for the Leafs, Phaneuf is delivering his best hockey right now. He laid signature body checks on Carolina pest Tuomo Ruutu and Tampa’s Dana Tyrell in last two games before the All-Star break. Phaneuf’s slap-pass to put Tim Brent in Carolina was a staggering display of talent.

Maybe the offence will come back. It’s not like Phaneuf isn’t shooting; he is 18th in shots by defencemen. You can argue that his arrival has impacted the power play. Dead last just a season ago, the Leafs power play has moved up a dozen places this year.

Certainly, the punishing element of Phaneuf’s game seems to be coming back, enhanced no doubt by a left knee that has fully healed from a ghastly skate cut.

So this is what the Leafs have: a defenceman who played 30 minutes in his last contest, a defenceman who is showing signs of regaining a physical edge that mysteriously disappeared.

Maybe that rekindled sense of mayhem will result in better numbers. Phaneuf is a player who is not unaware of his statistics. He wants to score.

The other element of the deal that bears examination is Keith Aulie. Aulie is an AHL All-Star who acquitted himself well in a dozen games with the Leafs this season. Just 21 years old and six-feet-five inches tall, Aulie is logging big minutes with the Marlies right now and will play for the Leafs next year. Aulie will at the very least be an economical fifth or sixth defenceman with upside for considerably more.

The third player coming over in the deal, Fredrik Sjostrom is a checking forward who makes $750,000 and is a free agent next season.

The players the Leafs gave up include poor Matt Stajan who has scored only three goals while banking 20 assists to  Ian White who was moved along to Carolina. Jamal Mayers is finishing up his career in San Jose. Nik Hagman has scored nine goals with the Flames which is a passable return on a $3.5 million annual salary.

If the goal of a trade was to skunk an opponent, then this deal looks as one-sided as it did a year ago. Thing is, we aren’t a whole lot closer to really finding out what the Leafs got back in the deal. We have yet to see the thoroughbred take flight.
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